Thursday, 13 October 2011

VISUAL ART REVIEWS PAGE


Reader please note I have added a page which gathers links to my visual art reviews in one handy go-to place.

(I may do a similar thing for my 'Doctor Who' reviews if I find the time...)

Sunday, 9 October 2011

SON OF THE RETURN OF ‘DOCTOR WHO AND THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND’


Previously on ‘Lucid Frenzy’, in a two-part piece, I tried to transcribe what I saw as the essence of ’Doctor Who’ and ascertain how well the revival was preserving and updating that essence. As the title might suggest, this looked into the political philosophy of the show, but of course that wasn’t the piece’s raison d’etre.

Except this time it is. No more sitting on the fence. The Doctor has probably hung around England long enough now to acquire voting rights, so it’s time to pin down just where he pins his rosettes. (Just in case anyone ever figures which constituency the Tardis should be counted in.)


“I think that I shall not listen to reason.”
-       Madame du Pompadour

Let’s start with ’Girl in the Fireplace’, if for no other reason than it lets me use this line – what was it that made those clockwork robots tick? They not only had mechanisms in the place of brains, they were forever attempting to make the organic into components of the machine - eyeballs into spy cameras and so on.

Of course they turned up during the Ancien Regime for a reason. They came to represent the imagination-deficient revolutionaries, the uprising of shopkeepers who, lacking the aristocratic grandeur of imagination, take everything literally – “thickies from thick-town.” In this literal-mindedness, they attempt to remove the head of the Madame de Pompadour, gormlessly unaware that her head was only ever symbolically important.

The Doctor, meanwhile, falls in love with that head, countering their clockwork noggins with the beating of both hearts. He was never more the dashing romantic hero (well at least not since ’The Christmas Invasion’), charging through mirrors on horseback and risking all to save her.

And she is saved – only to die anyway. Rescued from the robot’s beheading she simply dies of old age, and their life together can never be. We’re reminded that a whole history dies with her. The bureaucrats the Doctor forever encounters, the bean-counters and rule-followers who disbelieve his tales and clog his path, these analogues of the clockwork robots come to inherit the world she leaves behind. It’s a pessimistic view of history, in which the present is only a grey delineated sequel to the more colourful carefree past. It’s a fantastic episode, it topped polls and won awards. It’s also almost the very definition of reactionary.

So big it doesn't need a name; just a great big ‘the.’”
-       The Doctor, ’Silence in the Library’

Of course it’s absolutely in character for the Doctor to both choose love over operating system, and choose a mate within class confines. He is full of aristocratic signifiers – titles instead of names (the Doctor, Time Lord), costumes instead of clothes, has neither need of nor interest in money or work, and above all inhabits an air of mystery which suffuses his ‘specialness.’ The Doctor first visited the French Revolution in his first ever season, in ’The Reign of Terror’, and he took the aristos’ side then as well.

But then that’s hardly the sort of thing we should be surprised about. We’re talking a long-running prestige BBC drama, not some agitprop theatre company operating above a pub in Haringey. The BBC is government-funded, so what to expect from them except the art of the state?

But let’s look at it from a different angle...


“Everybody lives! Just this once! Everybody lives!”
- The Doctor

’The Empty Child’ was from the previous season to ’Girl in the Fireplace’, when Christopher Eccleston was still the Doctor. He stumbles upon a collectivised child group  stealing a slap-up feed from a hoarding nuclear family, who have been cheating on the rations. Enthused he cries “I’m not sure whether it’s Marxism in action or a West End musical!” (Though even here the group is notably a pretend family, with the mother figure Nancy at the head, insisting upon table matters.)

Yet beyond that family there are no real villains. Problems arise from good intentions misdirected, which the Doctor is called upon to re-route. This applies not just to the nanobots, who are only trying to fix up the injured, but also to Nancy. Unable to care for her own child, born out of wedlock, she sublimates this urge into looking after the gang of street urchins. To quote myself (well no-one else does)...

“Evil in [the Doctor’s] universe tends to be less an absolute force and more a product of the misguided or misunderstood. It’s less about kicking bad guys and more about healing the sick. In ‘The Empty Child’, for example, the malevolent monster disguised as a child crying for his mummy turns out to be nothing other than a child crying for his mummy.”

This time the future is coming up roses. Almost the last line is the Doctor calling “Don’t forget the Welfare State!” Wars will cease, poverty be reduced and single mothers given public assistance not ostracisation. (“Twenty years to pop music! You’re gonna love it!”) It’s almost the polar opposite of the previous story.

Okay, but what do you expect? A long-running series stretching back to the early Sixties, invented by committee, written in relay... that’s scarcely a recipe for consistency, is it? Yet, as you’ve probably guessed if you didn’t already know, both storylines actually came from the same author – Steven Moffat. What gives? Maybe we could go for a third example from him, establish a triangulation point to try and sort this sorry mess out.


“This dream must end, this world must know,
We all depend on the beast below”
’The Beast Below’ is perhaps Moffat’s most explicitly political storyline so far, and is a much closer successor to ”The Empty Child’. With the absence of anything resembling a West End musical, we are forced to conclude it must be Marxism in action. (I am only half-joking there.)

Society ‘above’ is predicated on both repression, and on repressing the very knowledge of that repression - which itself sends shock-waves through everything. The ‘beast below’ on which we all depend is the slave subject of imperialism, the sweatshop workers who clothe us, the migrant labourers who put food on our plates even as we grumble about them. The whole notion of England, pulled from its white cliffs and green fields, as a city thrusting itself through space, powered by the labour of others reeks of colonialism. (Even if we weren’t tipped off by our intruders being “Scottish.”)

Of course I was half-joking when I said it was Marxist. As in ’The Empty Child’, everyone really wanted what was best for everyone else. Problems can be solved by a push of a button rather than a messy revolution, and life goes on much as before only more nicely. (If I was that space whale who’d been tortured for decades after turning up just to help out, I might be a bit miffed about the whole thing.) It might make an interesting comparison to the SF classic ’Metropolis’ and it’s call for “a mediator between head and hand.” But it’s clearly packing an inclusive, socially progressive message. Two onto one, Moffat’s a liberal, Job done. We even got to finish early.

And yet... what about the character Liz10, who later turns out to be Queen Elizabeth 10th? She not only becomes their key ally in fixing the problem. It’s notable what a Queenly role she plays within the storyline, she is simultaneously above her subjects and represents them. Her button is simultaneously the same as everyone else’s and vital. First it appears the truth had been kept from her, that her power is actually only symbolic. Then it transpires she is as in denial of that truth as anyone else – and has held the power to fix up everything all along.

Her character is a clutch of contradictory signifiers; regal, commanding, decisive, while at the same time black and street-talking. (“I’m the bloody Queen, mate. Basically, I rule.”) Which makes her an interesting companion for the Doctor - who himself epitomises a similar set of contradictions, aristocratic saviour and social leveller.

As George Orwell once said of himself, the Doctor “preserves the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible.” Of course his most regular foe was always the Master, a fellow Time Lord. But this is even truer of the revived show. Three times now the enemy have been not a species but a family group who felt they should be running things (‘Aliens of London’, ‘Family of Blood’ and ‘Vampires in Venice.’) And the Time Lords themselves are seen in a schizo, polarised way, either a sober, regulating force who keep us from the abyss (’Father’s Day’) or malevolently destructive megalomaniacs (’Death of a Time Lord’).



“Hang on a minute. Who put you in charge? And who in the hell are you anyway?”
“I'm the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey... and I'm the man who's gonna save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?”
- ‘Voyage of the Damned’

Of course it would be pointless to take all the episodes in the show’s history and separate them into little lists marked ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’. Art is not about getting the right answer, and art criticism is not about accountancy. The point is that the two things are intertwined, that this is not some paradox or error on the show’s part but a reflection of the British society which spawned it.

This is enhanced by the fact that we most compare our popular culture with a New World nation – the US. In attempting to define and defend what is special about ourselves, we tend to reach to (and then rewrite) our past. But this only exacerbates a tendency that is already there. It’s something which would still be true if we compared ourselves to another West European nation. Can you imagine a French Doctor, proffering baguettes instead of jelly babies? A German Doctor? Think how smoothly that would make the Tardis run!

To dig deeper, we need to not only look at what is present but what is absent. Though there’s been two takes on the French Revolution, the show only touched on the English in a short two-parter transmitted a decade into the show’s history. This is indicative of our culture in general, the English Revolution is not held as a totemic event the way the French one is across the water. There is no English Bastille Day. It is not held up even by the mercantile class who it took to power, even under the cosier rebranded name the English Civil War.

Arriving much earlier than the French, this event was never as root-and-branch. It’s not simply something like our monarchy being retained (at least after a brief inter-regnum), for even other European countries with monarchies do not match ours for status or grandeur. Aristos retained a stronger symbolic importance in no small part because they retained their actual existence, heads attached to shoulders and everything.

But there’s another, more recent factor. Britain escaped much of the social turmoil that swept the continent in the early Twentieth Century, not just the great wars but the worker’s movements. As well as no Bastille Day, we have no May 1968.

So, from the anti-French antics of the Scarlet Pimpernel through to today, we retained our fondness for aristocratic heroes. And it must be admitted that, functionally, toffs make for effective heroes. An aristo is not promoted according to merit, his superiority is held to be inherent and self-evident. He is constrained from acting out his will by no day-job. (There’s a strong overlap with the emblematic hero, a point I argued here.)

Plus there’s a twist. Since the medieval Robin Hood ballads had noble origins grafted onto them, the aristocratic hero has tended to be an outlaw. Created in the era of the Welfare State, the Doctor was first an exile then the only one left. This threw the aristo off his antique furniture and into the maelstrom, like Robinson Crusoe forced by events to reassert his essential superiority.

”Planet Earth. This is where I was born. And this is where I died. For the first nineteen years of my life nothing happened. Nothing at all. Not ever. And then I met a man called The Doctor. A man who could change his face. And he took me away from home in his magical machine. He showed me the whole of time and space. I thought it would never end.”

Rose, ’Army of Ghosts’

Moreover, an aristo who disdains social dues might even one day brefriend you, and take you on a life of adventure away from clocking-in cards. This was true of the Doctor even during the ban on hankey-pankey in the Tardis, but is out in the open now. The new Doctor’s companions have all been taken away from jobs rather than careers, a shop worker, an office temp, a kissogram. (Martha, true, was a trainee Doctor. But then she was a different colour to most aristos.) A tall, dark stranger takes them away from all that.

Of course to think of the Doctor in this way is tantamount to suggesting that he occupies a fixed point in the narrative, that he merely appears mysterious to the rest of us. True, he often operates on a meta-level to the mere humans around him – possessing secret knowledge, pulling off impossible feats. But he is not and never was a short-cut to a copycat morality. He’s also prone to expressing doubts, making mistakes, even feeling regret. This departure from conventional hero status is a major attraction for the show.

Yet this apparent departure from the description actually confirms it. An aristocrat in a post-aristocrat world, he still has his privileged birth but no longer occupies the same place in that world. Stripped of his formal status, he is forced to extemporise.

Some take this character as a signifiers of a golden past where all knew their place. Others turn him into critiques of the post-war era; the target culture, the snooping, the petty regulation. Yet such characters were not a result of these divergences so much an expression of a paradox in our culture, one which expressed itself within as much as between ourselves. Popular characters like the Doctor are not offered as a solution to social concerns so much as a signifier, as a worrying-tooth which we might use to worry them through.

I ended the previous piece by quoting him saying “you need a Doctor.” But perhaps all this time he's merely been a symptom...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

"NO TONGUE CAN TELL": RIP BERT JANSCH


"In Baffin's Bay where the whale fish blow
The fate of Franklin no man may know
The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell"

Alas news is in of the death of legendary folk guitarist and ex-Pentangle member Bert Jansch. I saw him live precisely once, after Pentangle reformed three years ago. Reports suggest his personality matched his music - he described himself as "not one for showing off", and his guitar-playing is understated and unassuming. Listen to it for thirty seconds and it can pass you by, listen to it for three minutes and it becomes transfixing.

From back in the day, Bert playing 'Rosemary Lane' solo plus the Pentangle classic 'House Carpenter'...



Tuesday, 4 October 2011

DOCTOR WHO: ‘THE WEDDING OF RIVER SONG’


“You could have told me all this the last time we met.”

As you’ll know if you made it through my review of ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, I haven’t found it easy to write about Moffat’s recent episodes. That’s partly because I don’t find them very coherent, which makes them hard to respond to coherently. Those pre-credit sequences where we jump about all over the place, staying just long enough to take in one wild set-up before being whisked off to the next, I’m starting to think they’ve become the show in microcosm.

In fact quite a few things in the show are starting to remind me of the show. The finale of the last season, when there were no stars in the sky, I took that as a metaphor for life without wonder or imagination. Get to the finale this time (let’s forget it being chopped in two), and all I could think was “it’s not just in this episode that time never progresses.”

Because things aren’t even consistently inconsistent. It’s a strange mixture of stuff flying off in a thousand directions and a feeling we’ve all been here before. Take that oft-repeated lake in Utah and picture it on a windy day. The surface is an almost feverish succession of ideas, mad details sometimes on the screen only for a few seconds. (Pterodactyls! Dickens! Balloons!) But beneath that disturbed surface there’s no tides. We’re just cycling round the same stuff. Time is collapsing – again. The Doctor is imprisoned in a straggly beard – again. “All of history is happening at once.” Or at least the last two seasons are.

Some of this seems to be working to a purpose. Whatever reality they end up in, Rory still has to hang around hoping Amy will notice him. Some of it... well, it just feels like time’s stopped ticking.

You could of course get all zeigeisty about it. In the Hartnell era, time was one fixed point. You stood in its way at your peril. Now time is all in flux, except for the fixed points ... except they aren’t even really fixed in themselves. And inhabiting this flux is a postmodern landscape of quotes and quips. And quoted quips.

Let’s be clear, I don’t care at all about being asked to accept a poetic, squinty type of truth. If “all history is happening at once”, London would be ruled not just by Romans but by Normans, and the Daleks of 2150, all in one big logjam of order-giving. Except that wouldn’t have many practical consequences because without time no-one would be able to move. That matters not one whit. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if that sort of thing bothers you, then this sort of thing will bother you.

But on a bigger level - this plotline we’ve been following since ‘Silence in the Library’ hoping for resolution, did it really make much sense? Some of the answers were precisely what we guessed all along, while others were... well, what exactly? We’re told (and have it repeated here) “the Silence is not a species. It is a religious order.” But then why do they look so much like a species? We’re told Madame Kovarian is one of their “human servants”, and she’s offed in the classic Who tradition of collaborators who outlive their usefulness, so she’s presumably not in on the order. The Headless Monks look pretty much like a religious order, but what’s their connection to all this anyway? Are they all acting from their own idea of high motives, trying to defend reality by stopping the question being asked? If it was all about the Doctor, why were they hanging about the whole of Earth for so long anyway?

I suspect we’re supposed to be distracted from those unanswered questions by the raising of new ones, “the fields of Trenzelor” or whatever it was. I worried before about the show being “lost in Lostness.” I don’t have to worry any more about that coming. It’s already happened. Its rules are hasty rush and perpetual deferment. Watching it is like a donkey charging after a carrot.

Of course if you look long and deep enough you’ll find nice themes in there, as is almost always the case with Moffat. It looks like I was right about the Easter motif. (Good Friday was the date played prominently up on the screen.) The underlying plotline is reminiscent of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, trying to step away from your destined sacrifice to just live your life, and ultimately being unable to.

Except the one doing the dodging isn’t the victim but the would-be assassin. The Doctor and River are the star-crossed lovers who cannot be apart but can never touch. He calls her the other pole and I started to think of them as the twin poles of existence, wanting to unite yet with the whole of creation being predicated on their staying apart. (I was probably getting carried away by that point.) You could have taken that core and built an episode around it, just as you could the core of ’Let’s Kill Hitler’. But it all just gets crowded out by so much other stuff. Sometimes quite cool stuff, like a room of chattering skulls. But stuff, nonetheless.


Even within all that we have problems, though. River is of course the ultimate femme fatale - only she can save the Doctor, but at the same time only she can kill him. She’s been appearing to consistently upend the Doctor’s life, most seriously not when she poisons him but when she demolishes his self-image in ‘A Good Man Goes To War.’ Yet here it’s all reversed, her role is now to big up that self-image by telling him how much the universe loves him, and her ambition is to tie the knot with the handsome hero. It’s like the dark side of her role has been hived off and handed over to Madame Kovarian, the anti-River who arches her black eyebrows and scoffs as they flirt.

Admittedly this tends to be the way of things with femme fatales. Like pirates, they’re cool figures to introduce but no-one knows much what to do with them once they’re there. And if they do go anywhere, that’s where they go – back into the dutiful spouse. (Think of the risible ending tacked onto the marvelous ‘Gilda.’)

But that criticism pales to nothing when compared to the Doctor’s death dodge, a misdirection and copout that would make Chris Claremont cringe. Robot duplicates are like something from a Fifties Superman comic. Maybe there’s some lawyer’s defence, that when we’re firmly told “that is the Doctor”, he is technically aboard the Tesselactor. (And somehow avoiding getting first zapped and then burnt.) Someone somewhere will be posting to a message board how a robot could start to regenerate.

But it makes a nonsense of the pathos of what has gone on before. “I died to save you all. But don’t worry, as it happens I slipped out the back door.” That fixed point turned out to be timey-wimey after all. And wasn’t the point that reality couldn’t cope with a fixed point being altered, not that Madame Kovarian had kitted River out in an obedient suit?

And the final question turns into a kind of metafictional gag that underlines how much this show has become about itself. It’s not the ultimate question of our universe, but it’s universe, the one implied by the title. Doctor... who? I doubt we’re supposed to care what the Doctor’s actual name is, or even imagine we might get told. It’s a signifier of the central character’s mystery.

The Doctor “stepping back into the shadows” is more interesting, however. It would have made more sense if he’d been reincarnated at the end; people still know what he looks like, don’t they? (Though the “fall of the Ninth” stuff suggests that’s all to come.) But it does suggest they intend to do more with the ‘legendary Doctor’ stuff than just raise it and return to business as usual. I’m not sure they are going anywhere with this. But it’ll be nice to have the incognito stranger replace the celebrated galactic hero for a bit. Jaded of cracks and Silence and time ending, it’s good to have one element that seems genuinely intriguing.

Moffat wasn’t always this way. ’Girl in the Fireplace’, ‘Blink’ even as recently as ’Beast Below’, all were fairly coherent, self-explanatory and self-contained single episodes. (In fact the point all this started to change was the day River showed up.) Those simple, happy days when we thought the show was some sort of modern fairy story, when horses showed up on spaceships and Amy floated from the Tardis in her nightie, where did they go?

You can almost see him taking the road of the old show, only in accelerated fashion for our broadband-speed times. Remember how that went? At first everything was stand-alone, stories only joined at the edges. Only monsters and aliens recurred, so only monsters and aliens recognised the Doctor, and that rarely counted for anything. Then we got a few through-lines thrown in. An extra inducement to keep watching, they seemed a good idea. But it’s like introducing ivy to a garden, pretty soon its erupted and tangled together and is choking everything else. It was around then that the show got cancelled.

There was a distinct jump from last season to this. Nerds of a certain age will remember scouring cheap shops for science fiction paperbacks. These would often be cheaper if they had a hole punched through them. (An accident of shipping, according to legend.) The previous season was like a science fiction anthology from such a shop, cobbled together from quite different authors. The crack was like the hole, you’d be reading one story then another and it would appear at regular intervals. But it was just an intrusion on everything around it, breaking into separate realities.

However, this season wasn’t cut from whole cloth either. Particularly in its second half, it was more like a Cubist painting; the same themes, tropes and concepts seen from a succession of new angles. I’m not quite sure why that should be. Was Moffat imposing more of a remit on his writers? Or were they becoming more accustomed to what he was after, like workers trying to second-guess and appease the boss?

So a through-line which I liked less the more dominant it became, which cast its shadow more on the incidental episodes. And yet the irony is that they came to be the episodes I liked! Last season, I favoured precisely one non-Moffat episode (‘Amy’s Choice’) and regarded the rest of them pretty much as filler. This season I only found two episodes to be filler (‘Pirates of the Hollywood Ripoff’ and ‘Son of the Lodger’, though admittedly ‘Night Terrors’; avoided the label only through judiciously applying aplomb.) This season it was non-Moffat episodes which I found the twin highlights, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and ‘The Girl Who Waited’.

What they had in common was a deployment of SF tropes and tricks in order to see a known character from an unexpected direction. As such, you’d get more out of them the more of the show you’d watched. But you didn’t have to have watched the rest of the show to get them at all, the episodes were explicable within themselves. Moffat and the Ninth, I would guess, will give us one more season of all of this before ending everything again except for not really. But it’s those two episodes which signpost where the series now needs to go.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

FRIDA KAHLO & DIEGO RIVERA: MASTERPIECES FROM THE GELMAN COLLECTION

Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, to 9th October


Reacquainted with the past

We tend to think of Modernism as something bold and almost brash - loudly proclaiming its own importance, dynamic to the point of being pushy, ostentatiously foregrounding its own style. Which, in Europe and North America, it largely was. But perhaps things were all different over in Mexico. These works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera are bold, true, but also simple and unshowy. They sit and wait for you to notice how good they are.

Why the difference? The earlier Mexican Radical Prints exhibition at the British Museum gave us a chance to contrast the Mexican and Russian revolutions. In Russia, earlier folk art influences were purged by its rupture; like a seismic shift, it propelled artists forwards, into a clean break with the past. But in Mexico, not imperial power but victim of conquest, it led to people reacquainting themselves with their past. The phrase ‘Mexicanidad’, or pride in Mexican heritage, recurs throughout this show.

In some ways the works look as much like naive as folk art; they’re simultaneously simple and hyper-real. There’s a rigorousness to the way objects are flatly delineated, even when the imagery becomes surreal, like a joke told deadpan. Expressions are largely impassive (even in those among Kahlo’s self-portraits where she is injured and bleeding). Check out, for example, Riviera’s ’Sunflowers’ (1943, below). It looks straightforward, almost as simple as the children it depicts. But there remains something indefinably unsettling about it. Children are supposed to be open books and yet their games can elude us.


Contrasts and contexts

For all these similarities of style the show tells us “the contrast between the work of Riviera and Kahlo could not be a greater one. Riviera is focused on the outside world of history, politics, science and a Socialist utopia, Kahlo’s work is small and self-exploratory.”

We could quibble with some of this. We know Kahlo was interested in politics before she met Riviera; indeed it’s hard to see how she could not have been. (She essentially grew up during the Mexican revolution.) And many of her self-portraits were made after she was invalided after the infamous bus crash, when the only subject available was the mirror.

However, it would be truer to say they go for the right nail but don’t quite strike it straightly. To see the difference between them, we can compare their portraits of Natasha Gelman (one of their patrons, from whose collection this show comes), both completed in ’43. Riviera depicts the actress lolling alluringly on a sofa, her frame echoed by the lillies around her (below). It’s like a publicity photo. Eschewing this public persona, Kahlo closes up on her to paint a more private face. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this image online, but please take my word for it!) It would be easy to miss these were two works of the same person.


Kahlo’s painting style tends to be a little more sophisticated, more realised than Riviera. But the crucial distinction is that for Riviera people are generally there to epitomise types. When he paints the daughter of his housekeeper, (‘Modesta’, 1937) she is named but you feel it’s her Mexican identity he’s aiming to capture. Riviera worked principally in the symbolic medium of the mural. For Kahlo, and starting with her self-portraits, they’re people with all their complexities.

Kahlo’s self-portraits were influenced by the indigenous tradition of 'ex voto paintings'; though stripped of all the original religious content, they keep this form. (For example, though no saint’s dedications there still tends to be written inscriptions.) Like the originals they’re often painted not on canvas but on metal, wood or masonite (a kind of hardboard). This seems to emphasise their ‘drawn-ness’, work against the illusion of pictorial depth. (The gallery’s permanent collection has a room on naive art, where it’s notable that Alfred Wallis paints on often the roughest board, and his imitators all on canvas.)





The result is that, like Jesus’ crown of thorns, every object depicted (her dress, adornments and so on) become as delineated as her face, and so ask for the same attention. In Lucienne Bloch’s ‘Portrait of Frida Kahlo with Necklace’ (1935, upper above) she’s photographed sitting under her own portrait. This portrait is displayed next to it, ‘Self Portrait with Necklace’ (1933, lower above). Looking at the photo, as we would with a real person, we are drawn into her face. With the portrait the necklace is as present as anything else. (Which is once more there to emphasise her Mexican heritage.)



Kahlo painted many self-portraits, and you wonder if at times she’s deliberately trying to make them repetitive. She depicts her face from the same angle, a three-quarters view, with her hair up in a bunch. (See for example ‘Self-Portrait with Monkeys’, 1943, above.) It becomes a repeatable icon, as recognisable as the Queen’s head on a stamp.

It may be illustrative to contrast Kahlo’s self-portraits from Gauguin’s, as seen in his recent Tate exhibition. Like Gauguin, her personality and appearance seem as much part of her art as her art is. (She seems to have constantly worn the traditional Mexican dress of the portraits.) But Gauguin’s different faces come at you in a succession, like David Bowie’s cycle of alter egos. With Kahlo the same face returns in different settings and surroundings; we’re asked to put them all together, a compound image for a multifaceted personality. This repetition is an invite to compare the works rather than contrast them.

Happily this shared show isn’t like Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, where even us progressive types were forced to conclude that the woman artist couldn’t match the male for quality. Kahlo is not only given first billing but perhaps two-thirds of the exhibition. However, my suspicion is that Riviera’s heart was in the murals, with the result that galleries never quite capture him. We’re told here that his paintings and drawings often echoed scenes from the murals. (To see some of these go here. Alas, they don’t click to enlarge.)


However, there is a similar sense to the one found in Rodchenko and Popova in the ‘Defining Constructivism’ show, a division into male and female spheres. Riviera covers public and historical events, where for Kahlo it’s the private and psychological world. His world is grand, hers intimate. His muse his history, hers neurosis.

Ancillary photography

Unbeknownst to me, there are two small ancillary exhibitions, taken from the same collection, encountered here like Easter Eggs on a DVD. Frida’s father Guillermo was an architectural photographer, and we’re shown a series on churches. These are good enough, but the main point of interest is that they look like studies of - rather than contributions to - Mexican culture. (Guillermo was German by birth, Frida Mexican from her mother’s side.)


Manuel Alvarez Bravo, however, “the poet of the lens” and “a child of the Mexican revolution” is quite a different kettle of fish. He worked on the ’Mexican Folkways’ magazine of indigenous culture, but was equally influenced by the Surrealists. Contrasting Kahlo’s self-portraits from the photographs, I innocently imagined this literalism was some inherent feature of photography. Yet it’s certainly not for him! The title ‘The Washerwoman Implied’ (1932) sums up his style.

Like Kahlo’s paintings his photographs slip between realism, surrealism and sometimes semi-abstraction, sometimes within one work, like they know no bounds. (Compare his ‘Snail’, 1928, to her fruit still life ’The Bride Who Becomes Frightened When She Sees Life Opened’, 1943, up top.) Modernists are often keen to fly off to the extremes of a style, as if there’s prizes for being the first one to get there. But the interchange is often where the unexpected stuff happens.

Lola was both Manuel’s wife and assistant but gave up both to become a photographer herself. Her photographs are good but more straight documentary, such as ‘Ruth Riviera Moran’ 1950). (There’s precisely one surrealist collage, ‘The Dream of the Drowned’ 1945.) These divisions tend to underline what a multiplicity Manuel was capable of.

Sampled goods

Shows based on private collections can tend to the scattershot. It’s like swapping bubblegum cards as a kid, you never quite got the set you wanted and end up with an incomplete picture. We’re told Riviera painted about two hundred Cubist works (roughly equal to Kahlo’s total output), but we only see one. (The chronology suggests he abandoned it and returned to figuration in 1917, which is roughly when he converted to communism. Could these be connected?)

Kahlo dominates proceedings, which leave them feeling a little like a footnote to her 2005 Tate retrospective. Over a third of her works were self-portraits, and of course I get that their apparent simplicity is deceptive. But even so I tend to prefer the symbolist and surrealist paintings – and there are simply less of those here. We do see some of the Forties sepia ‘Carma’ series, created while she was ill, automotive drawings like fever dreams. If these had been in the Tate show they’ve since slipped my mind. Alas, though, we see only three of these.

But of course its an opportunity to see works by two great Modernist artists, and this show functions as a useful primer. Manuel Alvarez Bravo’s unexpected appearance was a definite benefit. 

Coming soon: Well, let's not say this up-to-date stuff will become a habit...